[box cover]

The River: The Criterion Collection

Criterion Home Video

Starring Patricia Walters, Adrienne Corri, Radha,
Thomas E. Breen, Nora Swinburne, Esmond Knight

Written by Jean Renoir and Rumer Godden,
based on Godden's novel

Directed by Jean Renoir

Back to Review Index

Back to Quick Reviews

Review by Mark Bourne                    

Martin Scorsese, in this DVD's new onscreen testimonial to Jean Renoir's sumptuous The River, recounts the impact it had on him when his father took him to see the film during its 1951 opening run. On the surface, there's not much in a story of first kisses and an adolescent girl's journey into womanhood to entrance a nine-year-old Lower East Side boy. But Renoir's languid and visually rich coming-of-age tale was set, and shot, in Bengal along the Ganges. It came layered with such idyllic Indian exotica that, for young Scorsese, it opened a new world. Renoir's India was Edenic and rather dreamlike, and through its exoticism, Scorsese says, as a boy he identified with "the real power" that is "the humanity in the film." Its lightly mythic narrative, set within a pastoral alien land revealed in vivid Technicolor, still speaks to Scorsese, who hails The River as "one of the two most beautiful color films ever made" (the other being Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes) and one of his "most formative movie experiences."

The River displays no evidence of the strife shaking India both before and after the shift to post-colonial independence in 1947. Instead, at its center is an English family living tranquilly near the Ganges soon after World War II. We follow three girls who lose their hearts to a wounded American soldier. 14-year-old Harriet (Patricia Walters), an "ugly duckling determined to be a swan," narrates the tale as a reminiscing adult. Her older neighbor, Valerie (Adrienne Corri), is the pretty and impetuous redhead who first stokes jealousy after the arrival of Capt. John (Thomas E. Breen).

This handsome soldier — the girls immediately dub him a war hero — lost a leg in combat, and is visiting his local cousin to escape the post-hero pity he found in America. A third girl falls for the attentive captain: Melanie (Radha), an exotic beauty whose mixed heritage leaves her feeling at home nowhere. Harriet's mother and father (Nora Swinburne, Esmond Knight) always have the homilies of the Empire at hand, with the family's kindly and superstitious nanny (Suprova Mukerjee) there to disburse quaint folk dogma. The story glows warm with familiar young-adult lessons in yearning, heartbreak, and family. When Valerie and Capt. John explore their feelings among the Bodhi trees and sunlit greenery, we have something like a Raj version of William Inge's Picnic.

But the narrative is just the bread onto which Renoir layers his meditations on the cyclical flows of birth and death and the changes in between. Embodying these universalities is the holy river Ganges, which courses through the film as an omnipresent metaphor connoting life's endless cadence of destruction and renewal, both of which befall the family in appropriate measure. "The river runs, the world spins," the narrator says at the conclusion, one that chooses to leave us not with a conventional third-act cap to everything that came before, but instead with a feeling for life's open-ended cycles and continuations. "The day ends, the end begins."

When Renoir made The River, it was at a time when the distinguished French director could hardly get arrested in Hollywood, his home since leaving France in 1941 to escape the German occupation. Renoir and the Hollywood studio system made for a bad marriage, especially when working for Fox under the dictatorial hand of Darryl F. Zanuck constrained Renoir's work. (Renoir eventually declared, "I would rather sell peanuts in Mexico than make films for Fox.") Going independent, he made his finest American film, 1945's The Southerner, and secured the film rights to a well-reviewed novel, The River, by Rumer Godden, an Englishwoman who grew up in India during the Raj. Pitching the poetically told but thinly plotted book as a film thrust Renoir against financiers and studio heads who wanted him to insert reliable but worn-out "India" clichés, such as elephants and tiger hunts. Finally, he gained a sympathetic backer equally smitten with Godden's novel: a Beverly Hills florist who had never before produced a film but had spent time in India during the war and fell in love with its culture and people.

During a pre-production excursion to India, Renoir too became intoxicated with the country. He called India "one of the greatest inspirations of my life." (Simultaneously, his location shooting inspired his assistant, upcoming Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, whose Apu Trilogy displays Renoirish virtues.) So his adaptation of Godden's semiautobiographical novel (she also co-wrote the screenplay with him) is projected through the refracting passion of a born-again convert. Pearled along The River are mini-documentaries on local economics, river life, cultural celebrations, and Hindu beliefs and rituals. A sequence about Lord Shiva stands on its own as a record of native religion, music, and dance. As visualized through Renoir's voluptuous imagery and compositions, The River brings to mind the romanticized ethnographies of Robert Flaherty (Louisiana Story, Man of Aran). André Bazin described The River as a film in which "the screen simply disappears in favor of what it reveals."

Striving for a cinematic honesty, he cast newcomers and amateurs in some key roles. For instance, he gave Capt. John to Thomas E. Breen, who actually had lost a leg and therefore could imbue the role with quasi-Method shadings from his own inner life. The role of Melanie required an Indian girl who could dance, so the character went to Radha, a dancer who was lovely and graceful but had never acted before. In fact, her contract mandated that she would never act again so that her devout religious schooling would not again be interrupted. So the acting and dialogue in The River are quite often stilted.

That stiltedness contributes to something unexpected in a Renoir film: its old-fashionedness. From its plainspeaking camerawork (Renoir's usual expressive crane and dolly shots weren't available this time) to its uncomplicated story's maternal voice-over narration, The River exudes a sweet-memories nostalgia, like the musty scent from a set of Collier's New Junior Classics, that must have been palpable even in '51.

Renoir's attention is instead on a flowing, contemplative serenity rather than conventional performances or dramatic structure. The River immerses us in ambience and atmosphere. It was Renoir's first color film, and his incandescent Technicolor (shot by his cinematographer nephew Claude Renoir) gives the film a lush hypersaturated storybook reality. The River exhibits, perhaps more fully than any other Renoir film, the sensuous texture and naturalism that can make his films almost tactile experiences.

Another Renoirism we feel is his affection for his characters. While it may be that India itself is the main character here, The River is lit by his plangent sensitivity to the people living and dying on the river's banks, especially his fondness for the young women within his lens.

The River marks a transition in Renoir's work, and within Renoir himself. The politically aggressive humanist who made The Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game seems to be pausing, at age 57, to meditate and reflect before returning to Europe and the unwaveringly humane but less burdened films of his "all the world's a stage" period. On this DVD, the most ruminative of our pantheon directors tells us that "India brought me so much through my work on The River. India gave me a certain understanding of life. That doesn't mean I understand everything, or that I'm very clever, but it means that I let go of a number of prejudices. Perhaps India taught me to be a little more patient in life, to understand that everyone has his reasons."

The Criterion DVD

The superb preservation of previously hard-to-find classics is all in a day's work for Criterion, who once again brings us a DVD edition that's exquisite in every detail. The River's picture and audio quality are superb, and the single disc is well appointed with an array of supporting material.

In 2004 the original three-strip Technicolor camera negatives received a major restoration. The result is an image that's perhaps more beautiful than Renoir could have imagined. The new high-def transfer (1.33:1 OAR) is faultless, as is the DD 2.0 monaural audio.

The extras begin with a vintage introduction to the film by Renoir (7:50). The avuncular director chats with us across a café table. In French with English subtitles, he discusses the production history from its beginnings, his time within the "extraordinary" country and its people, and the experience's "deep impression" upon him.

Martin Scorsese's 2004 video interview (12:44) offers production history and heartfelt appreciation of the film. The River still inspires him to make movies, he says; not movies like Goodfellas perhaps, but it energizes him to get out there and make movies, period. There's no more tireless cineaste on the planet than Scorsese, who after being in "the business" for decades remains dedicated to his work heading up restorations such as this one, plus recording DVD commentary tracks and supplementary materials for films he loves, not just his own. And I thank him for it.

The making-of information is covered at length in a 45-minute 2000 audio interview with Ken McEldowney, the florist (and lively eccentric) who produced and bankrolled the production, and who here offers his detailed (and lively and eccentric) reminiscences. Among the hopefuls who tried to get into the film, McEldowney reports, were Ronald Reagan and Sabu, and that Sabu was so persistent that McEldowney ended up paying the actor to go away. The interview is chapter-indexed by topic: Setting up The River, Casting, Renoir and Rumer Godden, Location Anecdotes, and Legacy. This menu item also includes a click-through bio of McEldowney and his history with The River (10 text pages).

A click-through stills gallery contains a collection of 116 production and publicity photos compiled from the personal archives of Ken McEldowney. Many of them have never been published before.

An example of exquisite nonfiction filmmaking, Rumer Godden: An Indian Affair (59 mins.) is a beautifully shot 1995 BBC documentary that brings the elderly, frail, yet lively author back to her childhood home in India. It's presented in 1.66:1 widescreen.

Finally, the foldout insert holds essays by film scholars Ian Christie and Alexander Sesonske. They do a fine job of placing The River into all sorts of contexts, and reading them enriches the film-watching experience. The insert also includes interpretive thoughts by Renoir found in his production archives. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

[Back to Review Index]     [Back to Quick Reviews]     [Back to Main Page]

© 2004, The DVD Journal